Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
January 5, 2012
Okay, I’m back, after a couple of weeks of luxuriating in unprecedented SoCal warmth, house-sitting at friends’ Spanish villa in Altadena, commuting to kundalini yoga classes every day at Golden Bridge in Hollywood, hanging out with family—and taking a necessary break from thinking.
But then my friend, Larry, and I got to talking about music, as we have over the years, and I was surprised to hear him say that music is in a lull, and there’s been nothing new since Radiohead. Really? Meanwhile I’m finding that there are so many new and interesting sounds out there I can hardly keep track of them. I love that I can stream KCRW’s Eclectic 24 all day long and enjoy almost everything (except Tom Waits; what do people see in him?). I’m always writing down the names of bands I’m going to explore in more depth on Spotify, but I never get around to it because the next day there’s a whole new list.
Larry put forth his theory “that the generation associated with 9/11 are a little traumatized and didn't invent very much (now they are 28 to 36-year-olds)” and hopes the "occupy generation will come up with something provocative and new.”
Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire are pretty exciting to my ears, but Larry doesn’t like them. MGMT? He says they sound like the Stones, ca. 1979. Huh? They may have written a tribute to the Stones, but they also wrote one (their only annoying song) to Brian Eno. Far from being “stunned” their music is celebratory to the point that their last album is entitled, “Congratulations!” And what about Lady Gaga? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Larry referred to an article in the current Vanity Fair, “You Say You Want a Devolution” by Kurt Anderson, whose thesis is that, “as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.” To Kurt, cars look the same, clothes look the same, and music sounds the same as it did in 1992. (A similar argument is put forth in Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania).
As far as cars go, it’s unfair to expect innovation from an industry that’s been simply struggling to stay alive. In fashion, even if the disappearance of showy designer labels were the only change, the world is better for it. I, for one, am delighted that leggings finally returned. We still wear jeans, but they’re tighter—a lot tighter. Along with being squished like sausages into their “jeggings,” women are teetering around on cartoon-like high heels (no one said we have to like what the younger generation is wearing, remember?) Oh, and how about this? More facial hair for men and less pubic hair for women (is there a connection? I’ll try not to make something of it). Then there’s the plaid fad, come and (hopefully) gone, and in footwear a proliferation of boots—high, higher, short, and (except for Uggs), pointy and pointier—flip-flops and (eek!) Crocs. In the past ten years waistbands dropped to the point of exposing the tops of thongs and worse, but have mercifully inched upward. We have global warming to thank for the fact that there’s a lot less clothing in general, and with so much more exposed skin, tattoos and piercing are now mainstream.
Regarding music, I put the question to son Matt, a culture critic by profession, who commented that just as it’s hard to buy a bad bottle of wine these days, music in general is of such high quality that the A bands might not stand out as much from the B bands as they once did. He reminded me of the junk music that proliferated on the airwaves in the 70’s—an entire genre of “soft rock” that is, thank God, pretty much done for. Larry is complaining about Bon Iver and The National, not Rod Stewart and Tom Jones—and even he will no doubt admit that teen throbs Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are more listenable than the Osmonds and the Carpenters ever were.
Lady Gaga is hardly “stunned,” nor is she simply a clone of Madonna (Anderson calls it an “Immaterial Difference,” which is cute but not accurate). In fact the very same issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story on Gaga with a pull quote that states, “As ‘Jo Calderone’ at the V.M.A.s, she instantly made every female star who had pink hair or wore a contraption on her head look dated.” Stuck in their need to make disparaging pronouncements about the younger generation (just like our parents!—it’s a stage of human development that, while undocumented, is as predictable as the Terrible Twos) it’s possible that Boomers simply can’t see the distinctions. While the “provocative and new” characterized the revolutionary times we grew up in, they may not be the qualities this revolution requires. My theory (I’m at that age; we have to have them!) is that there’s a time for innovation and a time for development, and we’re in the latter stage—it’s just that our hunger for the new has kept us from exploring it.
Further, how actually “new” was our beloved rock ‘n roll? Someone old and hip in the 50s could have easily dismissed Elvis’s music as a fusion of existing music: rockabilly and R & B. What made it “provocative” was the fact that he was white. And the Stones and the Beatles would have been nowhere without Elvis—they could have been seen as clones in the beginning, when their provocativeness had more to do with being British with funny haircuts.
“Newness” in 50s and 60s may have been more about a culture gap, which is now closed.
In making his case for stasis, Anderson also notes that Frank Gehry was the major architectural influence in 2002 and still is in 2012. So what? We had Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1959 and we’re not finished with him yet.
Therefore, it may be that Occupy Wall Street, rather than copying, is building on the peace movements of the 60s, Gaga is building on the Madonna precedent as MGMT is building on a synthesis of the Stones, Eno, the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd (to whom I think they owe the most) without sounding like any one of them….
Which brings us to contemporary art, which truly sucks (at least that in most museums and commercial galleries). Unlike architecture and music, it really is devolving. Instead of building on the old ideas, current art is getting watered down to the point that it has little pulse left, with artists reinventing the wheel left and right. I believe, however, that the cause is situational rather than generational. Where Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of MGMT could sit in their Wesleyan University dorm rooms in the mid-00s, sharing the music they liked, listening to it over and over, picking it apart, their BFA counterparts were relegated to looking at projected images or reproductions in books or on the Web. How many had actually seen a Rauschenberg combine? And even if they did, what about the ones that came before and after it? How many art students now know that Eleanor Antin preceded Cindy Sherman, or that Lucas Samaras has already done everything they (the students) are trying to do? How many have experienced an actual installation by Olafur Eliasson or attended Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA or have seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock? That’s why museum retrospectives, like MoMA’s de Kooning show (closing 1/9) are so important, but becoming fewer and fewer as belts are being tightened; it’s so much less expensive to clear the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal than it is to borrow, insure and ship invaluable works.
Former art movements evolved out of direct contact: social situations that built on other social situations, younger artists reacting—in person—to the artists and art of previous generations. Now they're responding to information rather than the immediate visual experience a true understanding of art requires. Also galleries and museums, by their very nature, cannot react to the times because they’re planning at least a year, if not years, in advance.
That’s why we shouldn’t be looking to galleries and museums for the new but to the streets. Street Art is currently the most exciting and relevant visual art because it’s generated in a social situation and must survive in the moment, which is unique to NOW. One example:
Meanwhile, if you want true inspiration in fashion, look to the kindergarten crowd, set free because liberal parents no longer feel the need to pick out their children's clothes—and unlike earlier generations, kids so far seem to have no desire to conform to any but their own sensibilities. I wish you could've seen the little girl at the airport in high, polka-dot rubber boots, shocking pink tutu, and long-sleeved striped T-shirt, her curly hair topped by a giant bow. And here’s my little friend, Lucinda, who, every time I see her, is wearing yet another imaginative combo. All is not lost.
July 3, 2011
Jerry Saltz’s piece about the Venice Biennale (here and in a previous post), with which I agree 100%, stirred generational debate on a grand scale. Many, (like Kyle Chayka) failed to notice that Saltz's brief is with the system rather the generation itself, but Mira Schor isn't afraid to state, “I don’t trust anyone under thirty! under 40, even under 50! the farther you get from the generative decade of the 60s and yes the 70s, the worse it gets….”
Ah, the old Generation Gap, and the realization that the young ‘uns are—guess what?—NOT LIKE US. And thank God for that! Although it’s crushing to think that someone who knows what I know is out there walking around in a 25-year-old’s body, the younger people around me are generally more aware, alive, knowledgeable, commonsensical, clear-headed, conscious, emotionally astute and spiritually evolved than I was (I'll speak for myself) until just about ten minutes ago. I find I have more in common with many of my former students than a lot of people nearer my age, and often turn to them for advice.
And they should be remarkable! They were raised by US—and hit the ground running. We worked to build a world that embraced difference and diversity, and they’re living in it. Of course there’s still much to do (many, especially those who allow themselves to be brainwashed by the news media, seem to forget that the world is not, has never been, and may never be, perfect) but it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. Up until the 60s there were laws against interracial marriage, yet in our family and among my sons’ circle of friends, mixed marriages are not the exception but the rule. Normal. As I’ve often said, gay marriage is an issue now not because so many people are against it, but because so many are for it. The recent sex scandals? Spitzer, Strauss-Kahn, and Schwarzenegger are men of MY generation who seem not to have noticed that times have changed and they can’t get away with that shit anymore.
And if there’s less divorce among couples of a certain demographic, it’s not because they’re suffering through marriage for the sake of the children, as many of our parents did, but because their relationships are so much more well-chosen, honest, expressed and committed. And their children? The little ones coming into the world now are observant, intelligent, and wise beyond their years. If ever you feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and need cheering up, just have a conversation with a five-year-old.
Maybe the personal really is the political, and these people are changing the world through the quality of their lives.
However the art—at least most of what we see in museums, galleries and coming out of art schools—SUCKS! Yet WE have been behind the institutionalization of the art world, calling the shots as it went from a “scene” to a “system.” As educators, writers, curators and art dealers, WE have decreed that art must always be young, innovative, have some kind of social agenda, and look a certain way. Could WE be responsible for this malaise? After all, WE are the choosers. WE are in charge.
Meanwhile, the music of the current 20, 30, and 40-somethings is thriving. They, too, are mining the gold that was the 60s and 70s—they did, after all, grow up listening to the Beatles—but where visual artists make denatured, watered-down versions of earlier tropes, musicians synthesize and build upon the past to create sounds that are completely theirs and of the this era.
If you listen to MGMT (led by a duo who graduated from Wesleyan in 2005), for instance, it all sounds slightly familiar and then not, and each reviewer cites a different main influence—Bowie, Eno, Pink Floyd, Joy Division and endless others. Arcade Fire’s sound never would have existed without the precedents of not just Radiohead, but Springsteen and David Byrne (who Radiohead was no doubt listening to as well).
And everyone sounds like Neil Young, except they don’t.
It's not coincidental that this flowering of music has coincided with the de-institutionalization of the music world (where WE, in the form of music company executives, were the gatekeepers), and that the institutionalization of the art world has brought stagnation.
[As Frieze’s Dan Fox asks, in a thoughtful interview with music writer Simon Reynolds, “Will the idea of constant innovation one day seem quaint?”]
Perhaps it’s time for visual art to become more substantial, developed, meaningful and mature.
But, you may ask, isn’t there a contradiction here? The music you admire is hardly “mature.” If you associate the word with age only, it may not be, but unlike the half-baked art of the same generation, it’s definitely developed. Here I take a stance based on the concepts in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (including the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery) to note that while most would-be artists are just finding themselves in graduate school, generally their rock musician counterparts have been at it since they were 13 or younger, which gives them quite an edge. Not to mention that no one can match the focus of an obsessed teenager!
Prodigies like Picasso and Basquiat? They may simply have started earlier. [A friend who was Basquait’s kindergarten teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn still has a copy of the report card where she wrote: “I just let him draw.”]
So yes, the kids are not just alright [sic], they’re impressive.
But those flip-flops they wear are ruining their feet.
MGMT’s “Siberian Breaks” (from the album "Congratulations") is my favorite song from 2010 (at over 12 minutes, also the longest), and while this version clearly lacks the polished production and sound quality of the recording, the modest in-studio performance gives a more direct sense of the spirit that went into it. And I love KEXP--that station and KCRW's Eclectic 24 are my main sources for music..